U.S. not biased against Muslims, Bush assures Islamic leaders
CANBERRA, Australia -- As thousands of anti-war demonstrators protested outside Parliament, President Bush thanked Australia on Thursday for sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan to stand and fight alongside the United States "instead of wishing and waiting while tragedy drew closer."
Bush personally saluted Prime Minister John Howard as "a leader of exceptional courage" for not buckling earlier this year to his nation's largest peace marches since the Vietnam War. Instead, Howard sent 2,000 troops to Iraq.
Forty-one opposition lawmakers signed a letter criticizing Bush's war decision, saying the war was conducted on the basis of a clear and present danger in Iraq that did not exist.
Outside Parliament, thousands of demonstrators banged drums and shouted at the president from security lines 100 yards away from where Bush entered. Other protesters jostled with security officials outside the U.S. embassy compound where Bush stayed overnight.
Bush came here, his last stop on a six-country trip, from Indonesia where he tried to convince skeptical Islamic leaders Wednesday that America is not biased against Muslim countries. He praised the anti-terror work of Indonesia's president in an appearance near the site of an al-Qaida-sponsored bombing that killed more than 200.
Before speaking to Parliament, Bush met with Howard and said the United States hopes to complete a free-trade agreement with Australia by December. "It's good for America. It's good for American workers. It's good for Australia," Bush said.
In his speech, Bush vigorously defended using force in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying that terrorists had been trying to gain chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
"America, Australia and other nations acted in Iraq to remove a grave and gathering danger, instead of wishing and waiting while tragedy drew closer," the president said.
While no weapons of mass destruction have been found, Bush said the United States has discovered secret biological laboratories in Iraq, design work on prohibited long range missiles and a campaign to hide an illegal weapons program.
"Who can possibly think that the world would be better off with Saddam Hussein still in power?" Bush said, citing evidence of mass killings, torture and rape. "Today Saddam's regime is gone and none should mourn its passing."
The president was interrupted briefly by an Australian lawmaker who opposed the war. Bush smiled politely, winked at someone in the audience and then continued.
The president cautioned the world still faces grave threats from terrorists.
"With decisive victories behind us, we still have decisive days ahead," the president said. "We cannot let up in our offensive against terror, even a bit. And we must continue to building stability and peace in the Middle East and Asia as the alternatives to hatred and fear."
Earlier during a 3 1/2-hour stop on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Bush praised President Megawati Sikarnoputri, an ally against terrorism, and tried to dispel the conviction of many Muslims that the war on terror is, in fact, a war against Islam. He presented his case in a meeting with moderate religious leaders.
"I felt he was a quite warm person," said Azyumardi Azra, a Muslim scholar at the National Islamic University in Jakarta. "He responded and he listened."
With gunboats on the horizon and 5,000 troops on shore, Bush's visit took him within several miles of the spot where 202 people were killed in al-Qaida linked terrorist bombings a year ago.
Trying to counter anti-American lessons in many Indonesian schools, the president said he would ask Congress for $157 million in education grants for Megawati's government. Like Bush, Megawati faces an election next year, and she tried to appear close to Bush while saying that her citizens are suspicious of the United States.
"We do not always share common perspective," Megawati said at an oceanside news conference under a thatched-roof platform.
Introducing Bush to Parliament, Howard acknowledged the fierce debate over the war. "We had a divided view in this nation," he said, adding that "we believe the right decision was made."
Opposition leader Simon Crean said that "on occasions friends do disagree as we did on this side with you on the war in Iraq." But he said that such differences "can enrich rather than diminish, they can strengthen rather than weaken the partnership. Our commitment to the alliance remains unshakable as does our commitment to the war on terror."
Bush's stop in Bali had special significance in Australia. Many of the 202 tourists killed in terrorist bombings a year ago were Australian tourists.
"No people are immune from the sudden violence that has come to an office building or an airplane or a nightclub or a city bus," Bush said. "Your nation and mine have known the shock, and felt the sorrow, and laid the dead to rest. And we refuse to live our lives at the mercy of murders."
En route to Australia, Bush recounted his meeting with religious leaders, talking to reporters gathered around an Air Force One conference table. Bush was weary with jet lag, his elbow on the table to prop up his chin. He sat with an open collar and no tie and wore a dark blue jacket emblazoned with his name.
"They said the United States' policy is tilted toward Israel, and I said our policy is tilted toward peace," Bush said.